The fate of the 2020 presidential election may have come down to one vote. At the Wisconsin Supreme Court, President Donald Trump’s bid to throw out around a quarter million ballots from Democratic strongholds was dismissed — by a 4-3 margin. The decision secured the upper-Midwestern state’s electoral votes for Joe Biden, ensuring his White House win.
The decision put the already conservative-leaning Wisconsin court in the sights of MAGA Republicans.
This year, with an election for a seat on the court looming on Tuesday, far-right political funders — including those who continued pouring money into attempts to overthrow the 2020 race after the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol — are putting millions into trying to throw the race to the right-wing candidate.
In the days after the attack, Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein, two of the country’s largest conservative political donors, gave more than $5 million to groups seeking to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. The same couple has spent more than $5 million so far backing the campaign of former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly. If Kelly wins, the court would maintain a 4-3 conservative majority but shift further in favor of the extreme right.
The Uihleins “fund a variety of other major conservative PACs and super PACS to run ads that span the gamut of culture war topics in service of Daniel Kelly’s campaign,” said Eli Szenes-Strauss, political director at Public Wise, a voting rights organization that endorsed Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Janet Protasiewicz last week. Public Wise has given $375,000 to progressive groups working on the Wisconsin race.
The Uihleins, who founded shipping company Uline, each gave a maximum $20,000 directly to Kelly’s campaign. Richard also funds a super PAC called Fair Courts America that has spent at least $5.2 million so far on television, radio, and digital ads backing Kelly and opposing his liberal opponent Protasiewicz. (The Uihleins did not respond to requests for comment through requests made to Fair Courts America as well as company emails.)
With more than $30 million spent so far on television ads, Wisconsin’s upcoming April 4 Supreme Court election has already broken state records. The race is officially nonpartisan, but its implications for the right to abortions has garnered widespread attention. National groups supporting the right to abortion have spent half a million dollars backing Protasiewicz, and anti-abortion groups have spent more than $1.7 million backing Kelly. Kelly’s campaign declined to comment.
“It’s coming down to a couple of billionaires and the nefarious dark-money groups that they back hemorrhaging tens of millions of dollars into their candidates.”
While the fight to restrict abortion has driven much of the messaging in the race, many observers have pointed out that democracy is also on the ballot. Kelly and his financial backers have played a key role in seeking to dismantle democratic checks and balances both in Wisconsin and across the country. Kelly’s work advising GOP officials in a fake elector scheme to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election has come under heightened scrutiny in the weeks leading up to the Supreme Court election day.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court race could become a playbook for future Republican efforts to challenge election results around the country, Szenes-Strauss said.
The Republican Party and right-wing judicial advocacy groups are watching the race closely to see what kind of messaging works and turns out voters, he said. “It’s coming down to a couple of billionaires and the nefarious dark-money groups that they back hemorrhaging tens of millions of dollars into their candidates.”
The Uihleins gave lavishly to election denial efforts both in the run-up to and the immediate aftermath of the January 6 attack. Richard Uihlein was the primary funder of the Tea Party Patriots, a group that helped organize the rally that preceded the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Uihlein’s $4.3 million in contributions to the group led the Democratic Attorneys General Association to call on officials and candidates to refuse additional contributions from the family.
In the days following the attack, through the Ed Uihlein Family Foundation, the Uihleins gave millions of dollars to groups that spread lies about 2020 election results or aided Republican officials seeking to overturn the results.
The day after the attack, the couple gave $1 million to the Conservative Partnership Institute, where GOP lawyer Cleta Mitchell leads the group’s work on undermining elections. Mitchell advised Trump during the call in which he pressured Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to lie about the state’s election results.
Less than a week after the Capitol riot, the Uihleins gave $250,000 to Turning Point USA, which had sent more than 80 buses of people to the rally that preceded the attack. On the same day, the couple gave $100,000 to the Federalist Society, whose senior member John Eastman drafted a plan for Trump to overturn the election results and spoke alongside him at the rally preceding the attack.
Between January 7 and February 21, 2021, the Uihleins gave millions to groups that amplified unfounded claims of voter fraud and stolen elections or worked to directly challenge election results. The groups included the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Center for Security Policy, Sons of Liberty, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Judicial Watch, FDRLST Media Foundation, and the Thomas More Society. The extent of the Uihleins’ contributions to groups that undermined the 2020 election was first reported in a January analysis from the watchdog group Accountable.US.
Kelly and Uihlein’s Tangled Web
Former Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker appointed Kelly to the state Supreme Court in 2016 to complete the term of a retiring justice.
After losing his 2020 election to stay on the court, Kelly advised the Wisconsin Republican Party in its efforts to create a fake elector scheme to challenge the state’s presidential election results. Kelly’s role in the fake elector scheme was revealed in February 2022 during the state party chair’s deposition to the House committee investigating the January 6 attack.
Kelly advised the Wisconsin Republican Party in its efforts to create a fake elector scheme to challenge the state’s presidential election results.
The state GOP and Republican National Committee paid Kelly just under $120,000 for his work, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported last month.
After his 2020 loss, Kelly also worked at several organizations linked to the Uihleins, as well as other figures involved in efforts to overturn the 2020 election, including Mitchell, the Wisconsin Examiner reported last month. Kelly worked for an Illinois nonprofit called the Liberty Justice Center, which has done legal work for Fair Courts America. He also worked at the Bradley Foundation in Wisconsin, which funds conservative causes and where Mitchell is a member of the board of directors.
In state campaign finance filings, Fair Courts America, the Uihlein super PAC backing Kelly, shares an Illinois address with another of its major funders, a registered nonprofit advocacy group called Restoration Action. Restoration Action is run by Republican operative and former Illinois Senate candidate Doug Truax. On March 1, Uihlein’s PAC received $1 million from Restoration Action.
Truax is also founder and president of Restoration PAC, which is registered with the Federal Election Commission, or FEC. The Uihleins have used Restoration PAC to fund other groups backing Kelly’s campaign, sometimes claiming that Protasiewicz’s backers want to push “trans ideology” on children. The groups include a super PAC called Women Speak Out that is associated with Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, as well as the American Principles Project PAC, which has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads attacking Protasiewicz since the February primary.
Uihlein has given $70 million to Restoration PAC since 2015. Last year, Restoration PAC gave $647,000 to Fair Courts America’s federal PAC.
Last year, Restoration PAC spent at least $3 million on independent expenditures in congressional races. The treasurer for Fair Courts America also signed FEC paperwork for many of Restoration PAC’s 2022 independent expenditures.